L.A. Catches a Touch of Auction Fever

Times Art Writer

As nearly everyone knows, art auctions are eye-popping, budget-busting media events most likely to occur in New York and London. But as some people have discovered this week, Los Angeles has a piece of the action.

That was particularly evident Monday, when Christie's kicked off its annual, weeklong Los Angeles "blitz" (to find consignments for future auctions) with a free estimate day at the Beverly Pavilion Hotel. The same evening, Butterfield & Butterfield auctioned a private collection of prints and paintings by Andy Warhol. Anyone with a case of auction fever could have made a day of it, starting with an evaluation of family treasures and ending with the purchase of flashy Pop art.

"It's fun," said one observer, "but it isn't Park Avenue."

The Warhol auction didn't command Park Avenue prices, nor did it offer record-setting material. The entire 116-lot sale yielded $1.4 million--less than top auction prices for single Warhol paintings--but it was successful in its own way. While the most expensive items--four paintings--did not meet expectations, the lower-priced prints often soared to surprising heights.

"Blackglama (Judy Garland)," a 1985 painting inspired by a mink coat ad (valued at $130,000 to $150,000) didn't sell. Neither did "Endangered Species: Bald Eagle" ($225,000 to $275,000). An unidentified Japanese dealer bought the remaining two paintings--portraits of Michael Jackson valued at $300,000 to $500,000 apiece--for the bargain price of $220,000 apiece including the standard 10% buyer's premium.

The paintings' dismal performance prevented the sale from reaching its total estimate of $1.6 million, but the prints saved the evening. All but a few prints reached or exceeded their estimates, and many of the 112 lots (which included one pair, one group of four and a 10-print suite) doubled the auction house's pre-sale valuations.

"I'm very pleased," said Laura Horn, head of Butterfield & Butterfield's print department. "Many collectors have discovered that they can't touch a painting, but they can buy a print." The prints offered in the sale are "multiples," produced in editions of 25 to 1,000.

The sale's most expensive print was a 1981 silk-screen of Mickey Mouse that sold for $38,500, twice its estimate of $18,000 to $20,000. The record for a Warhol print is $88,000, paid in 1988 at Sotheby's New York for an image of Marilyn Monroe. One "Marilyn" print sold Monday night at Butterfield for $27,500 and another commanded $29,700, just above their most optimistic estimates.

"Myths: Superman," a 1981 silk-screen, had been expected to sell for $10,000 to $12,000, but it brought $30,800. A 1984 image of Grace Kelly estimated at $11,000 to $13,000 commanded $19,800, while "Ads: Chanel No. 5" ($8,000 to $10,000) brought $17,600.

Nicky Isen, a wholesaler from Philadelphia whose I. Brewster & Co. Gallery specializes in contemporary prints, bought the Chanel print and 13 others. "I took the Red Eye to Los Angeles and it was worth it," said Isen who spiced up the evening by calling out bids from the back of the room instead of raising his numbered card. On several occasions he upped the ante considerably or made a starting bid that was far above the expected figure.

Asked if his tactics cost him money, Isen said, "I know the going rate for these things. I know what I can get for them."

The sale attracted a young crowd of about 400 to Butterfield & Butterfield's Los Angeles salesroom. Lily Tomlin was among the throng, which was dominated by private collectors. Additional clients watched the auction on video and made bids from San Francisco, the home of the 124-year-old auction house. The firm has been holding sales in Los Angeles since November, when it opened a facility at 7601 Sunset Blvd., but the Monday night auction was the first single-owner sale of work by one artist, Horn said. The collector reportedly is Long Island dentist Dr. Harold Sobel. Butterfield & Butterfield billed him as a private collector and later identified him only as a New York dentist.

Earlier in the day, Christie's free estimate session didn't duplicate a Park Avenue scene either. The casually dressed people who appeared for their 15-minute appointments with Christie's experts carried paintings in plain brown wrappers, prints and photographs in shopping bags, sculptures bundled up in bedspreads and towels. Parking their cars on side streets or depositing their vans with valets, they passed quietly through the posh hotel lobby, up the elevator to the mezzanine and into the Wilshire Room, where eight specialists were stationed.

Unlike Christie's appraisal days of bygone days, when long lines of people would show up with everything from tin whistles to Old Master paintings, Monday's appointment-only event admitted 75 clients who could benefit from the specialists' knowledge and had artworks that might be suitable for Christie's auctions.

The result was a low-key affair with a clandestine flavor. Thrills and disappointments melted into a quiet hum of business, and artworks were for the eyes of experts only. For Christie's, such events are a public-relations gesture as well as a means of finding auction material. "People can get to know us and not feel shy about calling us in the future," print specialist Elisabeth Hahn said.

For clients, free estimate days offer a way to avoid Christie's standard $225-an-hour appraisal fee while picking the brains of specialists. "I came to have my suspicions confirmed," said Gary Chafe, who calls himself "a sharpshooter." The Santa Barbara artist said he scours estate sales in search of treasures as a means of living in an expensive community "without paying the price."

One woman brought a landscape that she had bought at a thrift shop and hoped would turn out to be the work of American 19th-Century painter Albert Bierstadt. Debra Force, head of Christie's American paintings department, assessed the would-be Bierstadt along with works by Maxfield Parrish and what she called "a mixed bag" of material. One find, to be offered in upcoming auctions, was a collection of 20th-Century drawings and pastels by such artists as Arthur B. Davies and Joseph Stella.

Hahn's station proved to be the busiest, reflecting the current boom in the print market. She had to deliver bad news to people who brought reproductions of paintings that they thought might be valuable prints, but she had good news for a client who has an early Louise Nevelson etching, worth about $4,500.

Christie's public day pointed up the fact that the major auction houses scour the country for treasures and consider Los Angeles a prime source. The eight experts who offered counsel on Monday and three more are spending the rest of the week making home visits, doing appraisals and planning future sales.

Though what Christie's officials call "the Los Angeles blitz" lasts for only one week in June, New York auction experts travel frequently and California is often their destination. At the same time, the level of sophistication has risen with publicity about the art market.

"There are still some discoveries, but people are more aware of what they have" than they were a few years ago, Force said.

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